Fifa contests free-to-air World Cup TV broadcasts in UK

  • 12 May 2011
  • From the section Business
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Steven Gerrard celebrates scoring for England v the USA at the 2010 World Cup
Image caption World Cup finals games featuring England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will remain free to watch

Football bodies Fifa and Uefa have appealed against a European ruling that the World Cup and Euro Championships must be on free-to-air TV in the UK.

In February, the European General Court said the UK could keep the events on a list of "protected" events of national sporting interest shown for free.

It means the two tournaments cannot be sold exclusively to pay-TV firms.

Fifa and Uefa say they cannot sell the events fairly, and the cases will now go to the European Court of Justice.

Football's world governing body has been in the news this week with allegations from former FA chairman Lord Triesman that four Fifa members sought "bribes" in return for backing England's failed 2018 World Cup bid.

Lengthy process

The TV cases will be heard in the European Court of Justice, Europe's supreme court, regarding the decision made in the General Court (formerly Court of First Instance) earlier this year.

A spokesman for the European courts said appeals processes were currently taking up to one-and-a-half years from start to finish, and that any actual hearing may not get under way for up to a year.

The BBC and ITV have secured the rights to broadcast the football World Cup finals in 2014.

So any potential change of broadcasting towards a future pay-TV model would not take place until the 2018 event in Russia.

As well as the cases against the UK, Fifa has also launched an appeal against Belgium showing all World Cup games on free-to-air.

Whatever the European court decides, World Cup finals games featuring England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will remain free to watch.

The argument is over other games featuring non-UK teams, such as Germany v Argentina, and whether they should also be shown for free in the UK.

Points of law

"The grounds of appeal open to Uefa and Fifa appear to be relatively limited," said Daniel Geey, an expert on TV rights deals at Field Fisher Waterhouse solicitors.

Image caption UK fans may have to pay to watch stars like Argentina's Lionel Messi playing at the World Cup

He said the football bodies could only appeal on points of law - such as the General Court's competence, or whether the court breached procedural steps or infringed European Union law.

"They [Fifa and Uefa] cannot not simply repeat arguments that were already set out and heard by the General Court and expect the decision to be overturned," Mr Geey said.

He added: "UEFA and FIFA are now in injury time if they are to pull off a last minute winner.

"Although not inconceivable, the odds of snatching victory appear to be stacked against football's two most powerful football bodies."

Commercial arguments

Fifa and Uefa have argued that the current set-up interferes with their ability to sell television rights at the best price.

They do not see any reason why all games at tournaments should be shown free on UK television, as part of a list of national sporting "crown jewels" that have to be made available to everyone to watch.

The two football bodies have said that any games featuring England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland will still been shown on TV for free, as will the finals and semi-finals of the tournaments.

But under their plans the rest of the "non-core" World Cup matches and European Championship matches would not have to be shown free in the UK.

Mr Geey said the football bodies believed they should have the ability to sell such "non-core" matches to pay-TV operators.

"With such operators more likely to pay larger amounts for exclusive premium content, both organisations would argue increasing commercial revenues would be further invested back into the game," said Mr Geey.

Competition 'distorted'

Uefa has said the listing infringes its property rights, as it results "in a restriction" of the way in which it can "market the television rights to the Euro [championships]".

In addition, it has said that showing the entire tournament on free-to-air TV in the UK has led to "a disproportionate and unjustified distortion of competition on the relevant market".

Fifa earned a minimum of $2bn in TV and media rights deals for the South Africa 2010 World Cup.

And Uefa said turnover during the three-week Euro 2008 tournament in Austria and Switzerland was $2.04bn, with more than half the cash coming from the sale of broadcasting rights.

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